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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | It Doesn’t Get Any More Tenacious Than Nurhan Arman’s Sinfonia Toronto

By Michael Vincent on November 17, 2021

Sinfonia-Toronto-Nurhan-Arman-
Nurhan Arman (photo courtesy of the artist)

Founded in 1998 by Canadian-Armenian conductor Nurhan Arman, Sinfonia Toronto fills a unique place in the city’s cultural landscape.

As a chamber orchestra, they offer a more intimate experience. For music lovers, it means hearing more nuanced details in the traditional orchestra repertoire that you just won’t hear in a full orchestra.

Known for mixing both traditional repertoire as well as new works, Sinfonia Toronto feature guest artists who are known nationally and internationally.

Amid the lockdowns, they quickly shifted to a digital format. Since opening, they have moved to a hybrid format, combining in-person and virtual concerts.

For more details on their upcoming events, see here.

After a long, 20+ months, there seems to be a new spring in Sinfonia Toronto’s step this season. What’s the mood like amid the orchestra these days?

All my colleagues are excited and happy that once again, we are performing for live audiences. So far this season, we have played three concerts and completed a couple of recording projects for Canadian composers. It is so great to make music again, not just for cameras and microphones. It has been wonderful to see the jubilation of audiences as they enjoy our concerts.

With so many orchestras going on hiatus amid the pandemic, Sinfonia Toronto managed to stay remarkably active. How did you do it?

It took a lot of planning and logistics, as well as hard work and fantastic goodwill on the part of my colleagues. When Toronto was in lockdown, we were unable to rehearse with the full membership of the orchestra. Indoor limits of 10 people, including the conductor and an admin required for health-and-safety monitoring, meant that we could rehearse with only eight musicians at a time. So, I rescheduled rehearsals and had to decide which eight players should attend each rehearsal according to the needs of the repertoire, while also keeping work as equal for everyone as possible. We would finally have the entire orchestra together for just one or two rehearsals. There would be only one tutti rehearsal when the entire orchestra could experience the repertoire in the concert hall. Under these conditions, we managed to do four livestream concerts. It was a really challenging situation, but our players rose to the occasion and performed magnificently.

You will be leading Sinfonia Toronto in a concert celebrating BEETHOVEN @251, in December, with works he inspired from the Romantic Era. What can you tell us about it?

Last December was Beethoven’s 250th. Poor Herr Ludwig didn’t get a fair deal, because so many performances devoted to his music were cancelled around the world. Sinfonia Toronto did celebrate his anniversary with a livestream concert that featured the world premiere performance of a new string orchestra version of his 7th symphony. This year we will celebrate his 251st with another world premiere, this time with his 8th symphony in a new string orchestra setting. We had already played his 6th symphony just before the pandemic. Beethoven had a good sense of business and did want people to perform his music in various arrangements. His contract with his publisher Steiner & Co. authorized them to publish his 7th and 8th symphonies in 4-hand or 2-piano versions, as well as for chamber ensembles. His agreement maintained his right to review each arrangement before authorizing publication. So for Sinfonia Toronto’s performances of his symphonies, I adapted the string quintet and sextet versions, and reinforced them with Beethoven’s original string parts, and added a few tweaks to fit our orchestra.

In addition to Beethoven’s 8th symphony, our December 10 concert also includes two movements from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestucke, which I have arranged for string, and Chopin’s 1st Piano Concerto in E minor. I am so happy that we’ll be welcoming back the amazing pianist Dmitri Levkovich to perform this gorgeous Chopin concerto. We had to postpone Dmitri’s performance with us last season not once, not twice, but three times! So finally, it will be great to hear him perform the Chopin.

It is wonderful to see so many great soloists joining Sinfonia Toronto this season. Mezzo Beste Kalender, pianists Daniel Vnukowski, Dmitri Levkovich, Jarred Dunn, violinist Marc Djokic, to name a few. What can you tell us about them?

We have a history of performing with outstanding young Canadian musicians. I am very proud of our history with soloists. All of these soloists are younger-generation Canadians, and all are superb artists with burgeoning careers. Beste and Dmitri and Marc are returning after wonderful success with our audiences a few seasons ago, and Daniel and Jarred are exciting first-time soloists with us this season. In addition to Canadian soloists, we have brought some great virtuosi to Toronto for Toronto debuts and in many cases their Canadian debuts. Russian superstar pianist Alexander Ghindin, violinist Igor Pikayzen, cellist Narek Hakhnazarian, Polish violinists Marta Magdalena Lelek and Janusz Wawrowski, trumpet legend Sergei Nakariakov are just a few examples.

Hybrid concerts seem to be all the rage. Is this something Sinfonia Toronto will continue to do in a post-pandemic concert season?

We are certainly eager to continue our virtual concerts. However, I am not certain that our concerts will continue as hybrid events. We are now looking into whether our virtual concerts should continue to have the same content as the live events, or should our virtual concerts have a different scope. A likely scenario will be that we may end up splitting the season, such as three hybrid concerts and four concerts that differ in programming between the live version and the virtual event. There will be a lot of deliberation and financial planning before we announce our next season.

Not to pick favourites, but do you have a concert coming up that you are looking forward to most? If so, why?

No, not really. All concerts are special events for me. There are certainly some concerts that I look forward to, because of a particular piece I have scheduled with Sinfonia Toronto, or who concerts are with or where they are. It could sometimes be a soloist that I like to collaborate with, or an orchestra that I guest conduct, or perhaps a country or a city where the concert is to take place. But there is never a favourite for musical content. Whatever program I am preparing, that’s my favourite for that week or month.

You have a history of conducting throughout Europe, Asia, South America, Canada and the US. With travel restrictions lifting, do you have any plans to guest conduct this season?

Well, in these days of yoyo lockdowns and restrictions, plans are still a bit fragile. But I already made my first post-pandemic tour to Italy last month to conduct the closing concert of the Festival Udine Castello. I am leaving this week for Yerevan to conduct the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia. Later in the season, I am invited to conduct in Germany and in the summer at the Ljubljana International Festival.

If there was one lesson that could be learned from the pandemic, what would it be?

That we are on this planet together, and we need to learn to live with respect for others and our environment. Pandemics and environmental disasters don’t recognize national borders, racial differences or rich or poor nations. We are also learning that our politicians are incapable of fixing pandemics or preventing environmental disasters. They are too involved with their own re-election concerns and their priority is to please their campaign contributors. So our battles against pandemics and environmental damage must be grassroots movements that educate people to live responsibly.

Anything else you’d like to add?

The arts are in a fragile state now. Life without the arts is unthinkable, so it is up to everyone to support the arts in these difficult times. Those who can give should give more, and governments should consider increasing financial support. In difficult times, cutting the arts is like cutting the tree branch you are sitting on.

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Michael Vincent
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